- By Anthony Gilbert
- First published: UK: Collins, 1938
Ordinary housewife Janet Scott suspects something is badly wrong in the house opposite. A terrified girl stands at the window, trying desperately to telephone for help; as Janet watches, a thin brown hand falls on the girl’s shoulder, and the curtains are firmly closed. Later that week, the girl drinks an overdose of sleeping draught, and dies. Was the girl simply a mental patient, or is something more serious afoot?
Treason in My Breast is slow-moving and laborious, but it contains a particularly nasty and plausible plot to secure an inheritance – an updated version of The Woman in White with a couple of twists. The Collins blurb called it “a first-rate mystery”. Those who want one, however, will be frustrated; the villains are known from the beginning.
Few of Gilbert’s early books are whodunits; they are detective stories or police procedurals in which the villain is known from the start. By removing the whodunit element, Gilbert has taken away most of the fun of the detective story. Freeman succeeded because he showed the crime from the criminal’s perspective and then from the detective’s. A riddle in which the answer is known from the beginning – a mystery without a mystery – and which lacks compensatory character interest or much suspense seems rather pointless.
Only in the mid-1940s (the era of He Came by Night and The Scarlet Button, 1944; The Black Stage, 1945; Death in the Wrong Room, 1947) does Gilbert turn extensively to the whodunit, and then with great skill. “How well she knows her job, how perennially she keeps us guessing,” Time and Tide wrote in 1950.
“Few murderers would go unhung,” said plump, cynical Arthur Crook, “if people used their eyes more. It’s the man selling violets in the gutter, the woman exercising her Pekinese, the chap reading the midday racing news in the Tube who actually have the chance to spot the murderer. They’re the people he can’t guard against.” On this idea Anthony Gilbert has based his new detective story, and a jolly good one it is. Arthur Crook is a delightful nosey-parker. You will like his blustering humour and bull-dog tenacity, so hurry up and meet him in this first-rate mystery.
Reynolds’s Newspaper (10th April 1938): Heiress Theodora Fairfax died and was buried. At least, someone was buried; only it wasn’t the heiress. Behind this lay a tangled skein of mystery and villainy; but if Mrs. Scott had been casually looking out of the house opposite and seen the terror-stricken face at the flat window, justice would never have been done.
Aberdeen Press and Journal (14th April 1938): A third Crime Club recommendation for April is Anthony Gilbert’s Treason in My Breast. Here a woman in a London flat sees strange movements at a window opposite. She investigates and finds there is a young girl there who is insane. The girl, a day or two later, is found dead, there is an inquest, and the occupants of the flat are exonerated from blame. But the dead girl, a relative of the male tenant of the flat, later turns out to be an heiress, and a cautious investigation begins which reveals the most astounding facts. This is an unusual and well-handled story.
The Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 22 April 1938): Mr. Anthony Gilbert tells a more simple and straightforward story [than Carr in The Four False Weapons or C. Daly King in Arrogant Alibi], putting his readers to no other strain than that of following the record of events. A young man arrives from Australia searching for his fiancée, who has come to England to claim a fortune and who has disappeared. But what has actually happened, since death seems uncertain and in no civilised country is it easy to keep a person in confinement? From then on, the interest and suspense are well sustained as the chase continues, starting from a grave in Kensal Green cemetery, till at last the mystery is solved. Even then the excitement is not over, for again the girl vanishes, and the reader will be quite certain how and why, and the reader will be quite wrong. There are many examples of Mr. Gilbert’s descriptive power, but the detective interest is too much a simple following from one piece of information to another, and the critic must complain that the characters we are interested in at first tend to fade out of the tale as it progresses. Perhaps, too, it may be added that surely no doctor could be quite so stupid as Mr. Carter.
Observer (Torquemada, 24 April 1938): HANGING ABOUT
Anthony Gilbert is perhaps not quite so profound as usual in Treason in My Breast, but he has thought out a good story and tells it in his own thorough and discriminating English. It is not the first time that he has taken a theme of Victorian melodrama and made the horror of it live by up-to-date variation. Treason in My Breast falls into three parts. In the first, a not very sympathetic little lady sees more than she should in the window of a flat opposite, and persuades the reluctant Crook, “a fat cynical lawyer with a shrewd face and a lascivious eye”, to assist her in a murder hunt. In the second part, the hunt proceeds fairly merrily, but the crime puts on a more damnable complexion. In the third part, just as the hunt is drawing to a close and virtue is about to triumph, the reader esteems himself to be suddenly plunged once more into tragedy. It is in an atmosphere of rather grim humour that he finds out his mistake.
Times Literary Supplement (George Palmer, 30 April 1938): The two chief characters in this story are the murderer and a genial, but not too scrupulous, lawyer, called Arthur Crook. The former has every reason to hope his cunning crime will never be discovered. The latter takes for granted on slender information that there is a case of murder, and has to discover the motive, method and identity of the victim in that order.
The scheme to get rid of a young woman without unpleasant inquiries is a clever one. But it is to be hoped that in real life the most stolid staff of a mental home would include one person at least willing to give a sympathetic hearing to the protestations of an inmate. The book is written in the author’s most entertaining manner.
Time and Tide: Quite the best so far of Mr. Gilbert’s books.